Down East 2013 ©
John Stowe is a busy guy. As if being the owner and head chef at Rustica Cucina Italiana in Rockland weren’t enough, Stowe also has a three-year-old daughter, Lily, who keeps him on his toes. Despite these obligations, every December the restaurateur trades in his apron for a conductor’s hat and hops aboard the Polar Express, one of two holiday trains that rumble through the midcoast, delivering cheer to more than three thousand Maine children and their families. Stowe says that even though the ninety-minute rides absorb some of his precious free time, the beaming faces he witnesses keep him volunteering year after year. “To see the wonder in the children’s eyes, the way it takes them away for a little bit, is pretty neat,” Stowe says. “Sometimes you just have to make the time to do the things that are important.”
The Polar Express is staffed and decorated to resemble the train in the popular children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg that Stowe and others read onboard. (Thanks to the 2004 animated film, train organizers are forced to pay a royalty to Warner Brothers to use the name.) And it has departed the Maine Eastern Railroad’s station on Pleasant Street in Rockland for the past three years, heading west to the North Pole (clever observers say the village looks remarkably like a section of Thomaston). There, Santa sneaks onboard the train and surprises the children while his elves (recognize any local Boy or Girl Scouts?) perform skits and acrobatics in the snow outside. In Bath, a similarly outfitted train named the Candy Cane Train departs the newly renovated station at the base of the Carlton Bridge and heads to Wiscasset, with Santa traveling from car to car greeting each child along the way. Each train is staffed entirely by volunteers, except for the engineers who operate the locomotive. The Polar Express is a fund-raiser for the Toy Library Center, a drop-in center for children and their families in Rockland, while the Candy Cane Train benefits Tri-County Literacy, a reading program based in Bath that served 250 children and 422 adults last year. Sing-alongs, story readings, and, of course, candy canes fill the time while youngsters wait for their turn to greet jolly old St. Nick.
For children, some of whom come from as far away as Bangor and even out of state, the rides are a blissful kickoff to the holiday season. “I don’t have any favorite thing about the train, but I love how I get to see Santa and see the elves perform,” remarks nine-year-old Timmy Dillon, of Concord, Massachusetts, who has ridden the Candy Cane Train the past two years while visiting relatives in the midcoast. His six-year-old brother, Jeffrey, pipes up with an even simpler pleasure. “I like that we get hot chocolate.”
Even Stowe, with his busy schedule, admits that the holiday trains bring out the inner child in him. “It’s a chance to step into character,” he remarks. “Maybe it’s the frustrated actor in me, but you start to learn the story a bit more, you start to expand your character a little each time.”
The joy on the faces of the children aboard these special trains, though, looks to be the result of more than just good acting. Might there be something to the magic of Christmas after all?
IF YOU GO:
The Polar Express (207-691-6321) runs three times from Rockland on Dec. 5 & 6 and the Candy Cane Train (207-443-6384, www.candycanetrain.org ) departs from Bath four times on Dec. 13 & 14. Tickets for each were $15 last year, but call ahead to confirm this year’s fares.